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Recused DA responds to claims she blocked arrests in Ahmaud Arbery case

Allegations from a Glynn County Commissioner accuse her office of preventing Gregory McMichael and his son Travis from being arrested.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The district attorney who would have prosecuted the case of a man gunned down while jogging through a South Georgia neighborhood is now responding to claims that her office blocked the suspects from being arrested.

District Attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit Jackie Johnson recused herself from handling the Arbery case just days after the jogger's Feb. 23 death because one of the suspects in the case, Gregory McMichael, used to work as an investigator in her office.

But new allegations from a Glynn County commissioner accuse her office of preventing McMichael and his son Travis from being arrested after the incident. 

RELATED: What we know about the timeline of events in the Ahmaud Arbery case

Commissioner J. Peter Murphy told 11Alive over the phone Friday that the Glynn County Police Department contacted the district attorney's office within a day or two after the shooting. 

Murphy claims they were told by "representatives of the DA's office" - not the DA herself - not to make arrests in the case. He said he wanted the community to know that a lack of an arrest was not due to inaction on the part of the Glynn County Police Department.

RELATED: Attorney claims to leak Ahmaud Arbery shooting to defuse community tensions

However, in a lengthy statement, Johnson's officer refuted those claims, placing blame on the police department.

"It is unfortunate that Commissioners Murphy and (Allen) Booker have chosen to make false accusations against District Attorney Jackie Johnson in an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible," the statement read, adding that the acting police chief indicated that it was a mistake that then-Police Chief John Powell did not immediately call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Credit: Glynn County Detention Center
Gregory and Travis McMichael

The district attorney's office added that it does not have arrest powers; it only advises on the law. 

"If the Glynn County Police Department is unable to make a probable cause determination on its own, why do we have a Police Department?" the statement continued. "Our District Attorney's office’s willingness to assist law enforcement officers on matters of law is now being used by the Glynn County Police Department as an excuse to pass the buck and fail to act."

The statement continued, explaining that the office then handed off the case to District Attorney for the Waycross Judicial Circuit, George Barnhill. He, too, recused himself from the case over a possible conflict, though he later wrote that he found "insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants."

RELATED: Recused District Attorney found 'insufficient probable cause' for immediate arrests in Ahmaud Arbery case

A third special prosecutor was ultimately assigned to the case by the state on April 13, who formally requested the GBI launch an official investigation May 5. 

Within days, the agency arrested Gregory McMichael and his son Travis and charged them with murder. They were both denied bond.

Read the full statement from the Brunswick District Attorney's Office below:

It is unfortunate that Commissioners Murphy and Booker have chosen to make false accusations against District Attorney Jackie Johnson in an attempt to make excuses and ignore the problems at the Glynn County Police Department, for which they are ultimately responsible. Acting Police Chief Jay Wiggins has indicated that it was a mistake that then Police Chief John Powell did not immediately call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

As evidenced by the events of this week, the GBI was able to investigate, make a probable cause determination, and make arrests within two days of receiving the case. That is what a law enforcement agency does.  If the Glynn County Police Department is unable to make a probable cause determination on its own, why do we have a Police Department?

Under Georgia law, the District Attorney has no arrest powers. Rather, it is the duty and obligation of the law enforcement officer to determine probable cause for arrest. The District Attorney is available to advise on the law. Our District Attorney's office’s willingness to assist law enforcement officers on matters of law is now being used by the Glynn County Police Department as an excuse to pass the buck and fail to act.

When two Assistant District Attorneys were contacted by the Glynn County Police Department on February 23, 2020, they immediately cited a conflict of interest and stated our office could not be involved. Our office offered to facilitate getting assistance from another District Attorney's office.

At no time on February 23, 2020, did District Attorney Jackie Johnson have any conversation with any Glynn County police officer about this case. Further, no Assistant District Attorney in the office directed any Glynn County police officer not to make an arrest.

While our office did assist in putting the Glynn County Police Department in contact with the District Attorney in the Waycross Circuit, we did not direct his actions or appoint him to the case. Rather, that was done by the Attorney General's Office of the State of Georgia. Our office made the Attorney General aware of our conflict and recusal by letter on February 25, 2020.

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